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Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
Healing the Core Wound of the Heart
Dr. John Welwood is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, and practicing student of Buddhism and Eastern contemplative psychology. Dr. Welwood is an author whose books include Journey of the Heart and Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships. With Sounds True, he has created the audio learning program Conscious Relationships. In this episode, Tami Simon speaks with Dr. Welwood about his understanding of the relationship between psychological work and the spiritual journey, as well as his view of the phenomenon of “spiritual bypassing.” He also talks about committed relationships and the most common issue that couples present in joint therapy. (60 minutes)
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Dr. John Welwood. John is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, teacher and author. He trained in existential psychology and has also been a practicing student of Buddhism and eastern contemplative psychologies for 40 years. John is the author of Journey of the Heart, Awakening the Heart, and Challenge of the Heart, and most recently, a book called Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships. With Sounds True, John has created an audio program called Conscious Relationships, where he shows the listener how to look at their lover not as a block to their individual fulfillment, but as the pathfinder to it.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, John and I spoke about the notion of the holding environment in early childhood and how the spiritual path is opening to awareness as the ultimate holding space. We also talked about how John understands the relationship between psychological work and spiritual work and his notion of spiritual bypassing. We also talked about committed relationships and the most common issue that couples present in couples therapy. Here’s my very illuminating conversation with Dr. John Welwood.
John, your most recent book is called Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships, and the subtitle is Healing the Wound of the Heart,—and I was very interested in this subtitle in particular, this idea of the wound of the heart versus wounds, plural—and you know, I’m curious: do you see, now, having worked with so many different couples as a psychotherapist that there’s some central wound, and if so, how would you describe that?
John Welwood: Yes, I think there is basically one wound. I mean, you could even go more extreme; it’s a little simplistic, but to say all psychological wounds are one wound, basically, and that is the wound around love and being disconnected from love, and that is the ultimate wound.
You know, I have a friend who had a baby recently and I’ve been hanging out with the baby a lot, and it’s so clear that this little baby is a bundle of love, sailed in from the universe, and we start out that way. The thing is that people are already so wounded—our parents, and the people around us are already so wounded—they are cut off from the heart, cut off from their true nature, cut off from the capacity to really be in full conscious relationship with other beings. It’s never really going to get wounded in that way—that we’re not going to be seen, we’re not going to be recognized, we’re not going to be known in a full loving way, and that is the basic wound.
When that happens, the child goes into shock, essentially, because that child doesn’t know what’s going on or how to understand that—or know what to do with it, even. The child doesn’t have the capacity to know what to do with it. The child’s nervous system is completely undeveloped and can’t process anything like that, or begin to understand it.
So what we all do, very understandably, is we shut down, and that shutdown cuts us off from our essential nature—as love, as openness, as awareness. That is the basic wound. And then we wind up feeling disconnected and feeling sort of bad about ourselves, and that actually goes further—in our culture, specifically, more than in indigenous cultures. We wind up feeling there’s something wrong with us—that we’re not actually loveable in and of ourselves or who we are. And that’s the further iteration of the wound, but that’s the basic wound is the disconnection from our being.
TS: Can you help me understand that second step—so, the feeling disconnected from love as a small infant? I was kind of with you there, but the second thing—there must be something about me that’s unlovable or terrible—how do we make that move?
JW: How does that happen?
JW: Well, for a child—the child has no way to understand the diminished sense of responsiveness from the parents because the parents, of course, have their own problems and their own wounds and their own life to deal with. They’re doing their best for the most part—we’re not trying to blame the parents. We’re not doing that, I’m not doing that. Everyone is doing the best they can.
But for the child—when the child is not met and known and fully connected with or allowed to be who they are, then it provides a kind of shock to the system and the child doesn’t know what’s going on. The child needs the parent to be there for you—your survival depends on your parent, your caretaker. The child doesn’t put the onus on the parent, doesn’t see that this is the parent’s limitation—they can’t do that.
So eventually, the child grows up thinking, “It’s my problem. I don’t feel loved because I’m not lovable.” It’s the most obvious thing a child could do, and it’s actually safer for the child to do that – to make themselves wrong, in some sense, than to see the lack in the parent because then, it’s like one of those great —Cheryl Baron, this great psychologist, said something to the effect that “a child would rather live in a world . . .” I can’t get it now. I don’t have it. But, basically, a child would rather see the parent as good and make themselves wrong than the other way around. It’s much safer, better for your health, basically.
TS: Now, I’m imagining right now that someone who’s listening is a parent and says, “I don’t want my small infant, my small child to suffer in the way you’re describing—to go into shock and blame themselves. What can I do?” Can we get this problem at the root for the next generation?
JW: Yes, there are lots of things you can do, but on the bottom line level, it’s this way in relationship if you are not connected to your own nature as openness. The nature of love—let’s go for what the nature of love is. The essence of love is openness. Out of that openness comes a certain kind of warmth. So the two aspects of love, you could say, are in childhood, what [Donald] Winnicott called “the holding environment.” The two main, central aspects of the holding environment are, for the child, contact—making good contact—the child feels contacted and met, emotionally and psychologically. Obviously, also, the physical needs are met, but that’s usually taken care of. The child feels met and contacted. That allows the child to relax and be.
It’s like when you feel loved, when you feel met, you feel seen, something in us relaxes. It’s like, “Oh!” And as human beings, we need—Martin Buber talks about this: he uses the word “confirmation.” What he means is that human beings have the capacity to confirm each other—to help establish each other in our humanness, in our human capacity such as openness. So when you feel met and seen and loud, then your openness can be okay. It’s not a source of pain and suffering.
When you don’t feel met, our basic openness becomes a source of the origin of our pain and suffering. Then we shut down so we don’t feel open, and we don’t have to suffer so much. So if the parent can do that, do the best they can to meet, see, allow the being of the child to emerge and to be held and embraced—it doesn’t mean the parent can’t train the child and scold the child if necessary about certain behaviors—but the child needs to be met and seen. The child relaxes, the child can then open.
The other aspect of the holding environment that’s very important—contact is the first aspect—the second aspect is space. In other words, if the parent was only making a lot of contact with the child and not giving the child any space, that would also be wounding; that would also be hurtful. The child needs room to, what Winnicott calls “going on being.” The child needs to have room to just allow themselves to be, and have space to be in. Part of the problem with modern families is that parents keep their child constantly busy and occupied with activities. Especially now that we have all these technological gadgets, the child is completely activated and externally oriented toward these gadgets. But the child’s growth and the health of the brain and the body and the soul, you could say, would be—they have plenty of space in which to just come into themselves and to just feel themselves and to feel their relationship to life.
So, in other families where the child is given a lot of space through ignorance or neglect, you have to have both elements, a sort of balance. The contact is there and the space is there. The space is allowing the child to be, giving them room to be themselves and supporting that. So that’s what a parent can do, but a parent will have a hard time doing that if their own wounding is up in front and center. That’s if they don’t know how—they’re threatened themselves, by having space—by not having the space filled with activities. If they’re threatened by that, then they’re not going to allow the child to have space.
TS: But I’m curious—even if a parent, let’s say, was very connected internally, very open-hearted, able to relax deeply—do you think still that this core wound, what you call the “wound of the heart,” this central wound, still would exist in children that were raised in such a family?
JW: That’s a good question, and I think I would say—probably yes and no. No in the sense that there are indigenous cultures that don’t have people walking around thinking they’re not lovable. So, it’s clear that when a child is raised with a lot of contact and space, that they are much less wounded. But I think to that—that’s on the love side. On the awareness side, most children are not born or raised being able to recognize their own nature as openness and love. They aren’t able to recognize it, so to some extent we all grow up with some sense of disconnect from our being.
Basically, the parents and the culture—we’re talking about our culture now—the parents and the culture do not provide generally a very good holding environment. The culture is not a holding environment. Again, indigenous cultures that are run, that are governed by spiritual wisdom and earth wisdom—then, the culture could be a better holding environment for the child. So, the child is basically born with that basic sensitivity and vulnerability, basically. It comes out of their openness, and then when it’s not met or supported or allowed, then there is a basic disconnect from that openness. Also, there is a certain element of turning away from what is painful, and shutting down and saying no.
Another aspect of this that is actually interesting is that you could say that when you look at human beings and all the ways we act out our woundedness on this planet—through aggression and violence and hatred and envy and all the rest—what’s at the root of that? What is the basic problem of human beings? As a psychotherapist, I work with people’s wounding a lot, including my own [laughs] and this often turns up and goes up into the 60s and 70s. It comes in strongest sometimes when people are 50 or 60, actually—all the stuff they haven’t worked on comes up more strongly. People go, “here I am, 60 years old, and I’m still working on my stuff from childhood? What is going on?”
So, basically, a very simplistic but I think somewhat accurate analysis of that is that we’re born prematurely. The size of the human brain is rather large compared to the body mass of the human body, compared to, say, a horse. A horse has a very tiny brain in a very large body. So, a colt can be born and get up on its legs fairly soon after it’s born because it’s born with a fairly developed brain that can already function at a fairly high level. Human beings are born with a very underdeveloped brain and in order to get the brain through the birth canal, it has to be much smaller, compared to the body mass, than a horse, for example, so it takes us a couple of years before we can get up on our feet. What that means, really, is that we’re underdeveloped as a child—our nervous system is not able to handle and deal with all the experiences that we’re having, especially the painful ones. We’re not able to process our experience; we’re not able to digest it fully.
It all kind of builds up and it becomes what’s often known as “The Shadow.” All the things we weren’t able to handle, or deal with, or face, or even be able to experience as children gets stored away—you could say, I guess—held in the body, and it becomes our kind of personal coma in a certain way to deal with our unfinished business. It’s our undigested experiences. The psychological work tries to work on helping you digest that which you weren’t able to digest when your nervous system wasn’t able to cope. The nervous system, it takes about 14 years to develop in a human being.
TS: Hmm, I didn’t know that.
JW: Because we’re starting from such a low level of underdevelopment, compared to most animals.
TS: Now, you made this interesting comment – here are people in their 50s and 60s dealing with childhood issues and asking themselves this question, “What? You mean, I’m still working out what happened to me in the first few years of life?” But you’re, I think, saying that that is, could actually be a normal development, healthy development?
JW: I think it’s healthy at some point in your life to actually engage in the process of digesting that material that hasn’t been seen or acknowledged or felt or understood. It’s very healthy to be able to do that. What happens is that most people in their mid-life, 30s and 40s, have a lot of vital energy to expend on external achievements and busyness and activity. But as you get into 50s and 60s, your vital force is waning and the external activities aren’t able to fill the same role in your life. So you start to feel that waning of the vital force, and it becomes a time, then, to actually grapple with who you are, what you are, what you’re dealing with—what you’ve been dealing with all your life that you haven’t really faced and dealt with. I think it’s a very healthy development, but I think people often take it as a failure of some kind.
TS: Well, as you said, we’re used to thinking that there’s something wrong with us.
JW: Right, that’s it. That’s it.
TS: Now there is so much I want to talk to you about—oh, go ahead.
JW: I think that’s the basic tragedy of being a human being, is that we live in this gorgeous planet, you know, that’s like the garden of Eden and it’s so beautiful, this planet, and so rich in resources for all of us to live on and be healthy, and I see it as the people walking around wounded and thinking there’s something wrong with them. [It] leads to all this kind of crazy behavior that dominates the planet because people are trying to then compensate. So people are walking around with a sense of inner deficiency and then when you have a sense of inner deficiency that’s kind of an unconscious sense, subconscious sense of deficiency that’s running you, what we do is try to compensate for that by trying to make ourselves good, trying to make ourselves better, trying to make ourselves more secure, try to make ourselves good—so people have kind of hyper-motivation to own and dominate and plunder.
It comes out of kind of a compensatory mechanism – I call it the Compensatory Identity, and then there’s a decision—underlying that is the Decision Identity—the sense of something really wrong with me, but I try to make up for that by achieving or owning or sex or money or power, and those are ways that we try to compensate. So it’s tragic that we can’t actually just relax and enjoy who we are—we actually have to be constantly trying to heal that sense of deficiency but we do it in these very distorted ways.
TS: You know, there is so much I want to talk to you about, John, so I’m going to see if I can get right to some of the main points. One of them is that you mention this holding environment—the ideal holding environment for a child, a young child to grow up in—in which there is both contact and space. But you make this interesting, at least I want you to clarify—make sure I’m understanding your work correctly—this interesting point that even as adults, we could relax into the holding environment of the cosmos, that there’s a possibility—
JW: That’s right.
TS: —and what the connection is with our childhood, so I’d love for you to explain that.
JW: Explain which piece?
TS: What’s possible as an adult in terms of relaxing into an already always given holding environment and how that could provide healing for us as adults, regardless of what our childhood was like?
JW: Right. Well, that’s basically the spiritual path, that’s what the spiritual path is. And this is to actually explore and discover the way that we are held by the universe, or you could say by awareness. All our neuroses—all our psychological neuroses are conditioned patterns of behavior and feeling—are all actually held in awareness, and so shifting the focus from identification with a problem—a sense of identification with a deficiency, in this case—to awareness of the identification with deficiencies: it’s a big step, actually to do that. That’s part of the healing is actually to realize that awareness is the ultimate holding environment, and awareness is the ultimate healing agent. Awareness is the ultimate enzyme that helps us digest the undigested experiences from the past. So it is very much the heart of the spiritual path.
TS: So I get the space component of the holding environment that awareness provides—what’s the contact part?
JW: OK, well we could say the contact part is also largely addressed through psychological work. I mean, it’s also addressed in spiritual traditions. For example, in Tantric Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism, there is a whole way of working with emotions where you make direct contact with emotion from awareness and you penetrate—you sort of absorb the thought and emotion back into awareness. So there is a kind of contact going on, and not just a space element.
TS: Could you slow that down a little bit and maybe give me an example and explain that?
JW: Yes. Let’s say I’m angry. Now, this is an advanced practice; it’s not something someone can do off the street, but you feel the anger in your body and you separate the anger from any mental elaboration about, any construction about [how] this anger means X, Y, or Z or means that this person’s wrong or I’m wrong or the world is wrong or the situation is wrong and I’ve got to fix it, I’ve got to change it, or why did they do this to me —all that kind of ideation, that mental ideation that is a way of trying to interpret these emotions. So we have to separate that out and we have to see that that’s just thought form, those are just stories in our mind, those are just mental constructions.
So then that helps to allow us to meet the anger as a pure experience, without any mental framework or interpretation or point of view on it. That’s very important, to separate that out. And then we could actually meet the energy of the anger directly, which is just—it’s just energy. Fear is just energy, anger is just energy, depression is just coagulated energy. It’s basically chi or energy that’s become fixated through the stories and interpretations we put on it, and we separate it out. We just meet the energy directly—it’s just energy, and so we can actually rest in that energy, can let the mind rest in the midst of that energy without even labeling it anger, but actually just the pure experience, the pure energetic experience that it is. So that’s a kind of a little schematic of how that might happen.
But the other way to work—so that’s the kind of, what we could say is a spiritual way of working with emotion and wounded—but a psychological way would be slightly different. It’s actually more like meeting the experience directly in the same way but letting that anger—the word I use is “unpack” —so unpack the anger. Meet it, feel it, and acknowledge it and allow it, and then inquire into it—what is this anger? What am I feeling so angry about? But not trying to figure it out with your mind, but actually staying right in touch—this is where contact is very important—staying in direct contact with the feeling and asking it questions and the feeling can then start to reveal itself—what it’s about, where it’s stuck, where it’s kind of glitched, what it needs in order to resolve. All these things come out of inquiring into it, unpacking it so those elements can then be worked with as you start to unpack them.
TS: 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?
JW: 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” —
JW: And sometimes I say relative truth is really relational truth. It’s about how we are in relationship. For example, in the nondual teachings there’s no self and there’s no other. There’s just being. There’s no focus on the self and other split—it’s like overcoming a transcendence of the self-other split. But in real, relative life, which is for most of us relational life, because our life unfolds in relationship to other people, from beginning to end, you know, and we actually need other human beings to guide us, confirm us, as Buber talks about, to lead us, to show us the way—even when we’re dying sometimes, we need help to die.
So on the one hand, human beings are completely dependent on other human beings in that way, even though our ultimate nature is, you could say, non-dependent. So it’s like—I think the relationship between the psychological and the spiritual really, in some sense, is a complete paradox, because we’re working on different levels of who we are, which sometimes seem completely opposite, completely almost incompatible. So the paradox is that we can hold both truths even though they seem to be completely opposite. Our ultimate nature is completely, unconditionally free from the very beginning, and our relative nature is very bound and conditioned, and it’s bound up in relationships and the problems in human relationship—the opportunity in relationship.
So in some sense, we’re perfect on the one hand from the ultimate point of view, and we’re completely messed up from the other point of view. And they’re both true. And I think we can hold it that way—then it’s actually very healthy because human being is a walking paradox. We’re a mix of spirit and matter, you could say heaven and earth, the conditioned, the unconditioned, form and emptiness, formless. We’re the bringing together of these two completely different levels of reality—form and formless—and so our life is a tremendous opportunity to actually work with that paradox and unfold it. So it actually becomes very beautiful in a certain way, although there are certain phases in our development where we feel like we’re working maybe at opposite ends and going in different directions, but I think they really, ultimately work very well together.
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 to the universe, 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.
TS: Now, here’s a question I really want to hear what you have to say about, which is, as you’re talking, I’m in touch with how grateful I am for all of the psychological work that I’ve done over the last couple decades, and you know, working very closely with a talented therapist, et cetera. And yet, what I know is when I talk to many people here, both within the company at Sounds True, and also other people I know, their response is, “Well this is all very rarified, Tami—you can afford this kind of psychotherapy. What about the rest of us? How are we going to get the kind of relational healing that John’s describing?” Is there any way that this is going to become really accessible and democratized, if you will?
JW: That’s a good question. Yes, you know my psychological teacher and mentor, Eugene Gendlin, actually worked on this a very long time ago, in the 60s, and developed a program called “Changes” where people just came together and worked with each other using a particular focusing method that he developed. There was no hierarchy, it was free.
So I think there are ways that, when people can recognize the importance of this kind of work, the people can come together and create that kind of communal—I mean, every community should have a little community center, where people at least are meeting and gathering and working together in small groups, or also in pairs, just taking turns. Of course, there would have to be some little bit of training in that, but that would be great. I think that’s really important. I think what the problem is today is so much of—everyone is so isolated, and there isn’t community and everyone is just kind of completely absorbed in that technological gadgetry in an isolated sort of way, and I think democratizing psychological work is a great idea. In fact, also bring it in to spiritual communities.
I did a training recently with a Tibetan teacher where we explored opening. We had a retreat and we had explored opening up a day for people to do some psychological work and I think that’s very important, too. It doesn’t have to be mystified. Of course in extreme psycho-pathologies, there is a lot of training and knowledge that needs to happen but on an ordinary level of sort of normal neuroses, people can help each other without having to have a huge amount of expertise, professional expertise. If they just have some basic training tools, I think that’s very important. How do we create a healing on a widespread scale and make that part of our culture? You know, traditional cultures had other ways of doing that—shamanistic rituals and so forth.
TS: You know, I want to circle back for a moment to this topic of relationships, and you mentioned what a key point it is to understand that this early wounding happened in relationship and then is healed through relationship—
JW: Through relationships, yes.
TS: In the program that you recorded with Sounds True, it’s called Conscious Relationships, and I’m curious if you think the kind of healing that we’re talking about here, of this core wound—and this may seem like a strange question, but I want to ask it—can happen in open relationships, non-monogamous relationships, or if you think there is some kind of commitment or crucible that’s required for this kind of deep healing to occur, and does that include monogamy, and what your view is after working with so many couples?
JW: Right. Well, the general thing would be that—I’ll answer your question in a minute, but before that, just to say—the general point might be that a lot of the relational hearing doesn’t have to be done in a psychotherapy situation. A lot of it can be done in relationship to another person you’re intimate with because, if you can hold it that way, of course you may need some help doing couple’s work, but it’s very powerful—relationship is the most powerful way to bring up your wounds from the past. It brings them all up [laughs] inevitably. There’s no way around it because it just brings up the places where one’s shut down, and all one’s projections onto other people, and all one’s self-deficiency ideas, and all the rest—they all come up in a relationship, so relationship is a wonderful vehicle for working on one’s psychological and unconscious material.
Coming now to your question, personally, I do feel—I’m not going to make an absolute statement about this because I can’t ultimately do that, but just from my experiences, I have found that the difficulty with things like polyamory or non-monogamous relationships is that they bring up in spades that wounding, and often re-wound people, a lot. I don’t know if it has to be that way, but I know for myself—I can say from my own experience—if I were going to pursue that kind of relationship, I know I would have to go through a lot of agony. I guess people do that and maybe they come out the other side, but I think a lot of people get really re-wounded along the way, especially if you have a sense, have a fear of abandonment.
Usually one of the big problems in childhood is when that contact hasn’t been present— loving contact hasn’t been a part of your life as a child—there is some level of trauma around abandonment, at different levels, trauma and shock around abandonment. So, if there’s no commitment, no container, no committed container, it’s like—I sometimes think about the committed relationship of an alchemical vessel. It’s like you seal the vessel and you do the work within the vessel. I can’t say absolutely that that’s always true for all people in all times, because I’ve had people write me letters and say, “So you seem to have a bias towards monogamy, buddy, and I’ve been in an open relationship for most of my life and it’s really been fantastic and I’ve really grown a lot from it,” so I’ll honor that possibility—I think that’s possible, because people do tell me that that does work for them, but I think it’s also extremely challenging.
TS: So, is it possible to say that there is certain requirements for a conscious relationship, using that term “conscious relationship” —what would you say the couples need to be, what would you say the members of a couple need to be willing to commit to, to say, “Oh this is a conscious relationship,” in your view?
JW: First off, I think the basis of it is the couple comes together and they develop a vision of what they’re doing together. They’re not just together for sex or making each other feel secure or taking care of each other—those are elements—but cultivating a larger vision of what is the purpose of this relationship, what is the ultimate, the spiritual nature, spiritual purpose of this relationship, so they have some kind of vision of being able to use the difficulties in their relationship—and relationship always comes with a lot of difficulties, a lot of challenges if it’s a strong relationship.
The stronger it is, the more we feel a deep connection with someone, the more it’s also going to bring up all our obstacles and obstacles to love, so it goes hand in hand that way. So, we need a vision and some kind of commitment to work through all that material, that we’re going to stay present and we’re going to work through, we’re going to open to it, we’re going to face it, we’re going to talk about it, we’re going to express it, and it’s all going to be in the service of love and openness.
So I think that vision is very important, and that’s probably the most important thing there is. It’s like an intention, forming an intention. An intention is such an important part of life. And I think we need some tools to be able to communicate. And there are some basic methods around how to do basic couple communications, some very simple ways of being able to hear and listen.
An important word here is to be “attuned” to the other person, and I think that attunement is a very important aspect of what we didn’t get, often, in childhood. Sometimes, for example, I know that my mother loved me. She was a very loving person, and she also was not at all attuned to me, which is very interesting [laughs], so attunement is beyond even love, in a certain way. It’s a capacity to tune in and be sensitive and perceptive to what’s going on in yourself and in another person.
So where I’m attuned to my partner, I’m concerned for them, I want to see what’s going on for them, I ask good questions, I listen, I’m interested, I want to know where they’re at. I want to know what’s going on for them. I want them to share their process with me so I can get to know them better, feel more connected with them and also know where I, how I feel in relationship to them. It helps me—once I’m attuned to where someone else is, I can also be attuned to myself and share where I am and so forth, and then that process of sharing where we’re at with each other is very, very much a part of the path.
And also to be able to really listen to another person, which is a kind of—listening, I consider, is a sacred activity: it’s a capacity of surrendering and just hearing and letting in, receiving. It’s a power of—it’s another expression of openness, learning to really listen, and learning to really speak your own truth. I mean, those are just such powerful things.
TS: Because you’ve worked with so many couples, I’m interested to sort of get behind the door, if you will, of the therapist’s office, and I’m curious—have you seen a pattern of where couples get stuck? Like, here we go—this is the place, this is, you know—are there a few core patterns, like, “Uh huh, this is it?”
JW: Yes, number one is blame. Number one absolutely is blame. And, you know, blame comes out of that wound again because it’s like we were—we experienced a tremendous pain and suffering through our relationship with people, our caretakers in childhood. And so there is a whole level of, often, unexpressed anger, unexpressed frustration, and often comes out in relationship as seeing the other as, what I call in my book, Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships, the “bad other.” So the bad other is that person who doesn’t love me properly, who doesn’t see me, who doesn’t actually get who I am.
That’s the bad other, so the bad other is, we weren’t able to experience that with our parents because we needed to see them as good because they were our caretakers—we depended on them for everything, so it was a part of our survival and security to see our parents as good and make ourselves wrong. But the flip side of that, the shadow of that, is that we have this underground grievance and resentment against [the] other, against other, period; against other people.
I go into that in the book a lot, about where does something like road rage come from? It’s like this complete projection—someone cuts you off in an intersection and suddenly people are blowing up and getting out of their car on the LA freeways and shooting each other [laughs], like what is going on? And it’s coming from, because there’s this projection of the bad other that comes up so quickly when someone doesn’t treat you right. Maybe they’re distracted, maybe it’s the waitress in the restaurant is having a bad hair day, and they’re not attuned to you as a customer, and you sort of like get all incensed and outraged. I mean, it’s a ridiculous reality point of view, but we understand psychologically, we’re saying we understand that actually we’re projecting the bad other onto other people.
So in relationships, that creates a sense of blame. I’m always blaming my partner for how I don’t feel good in a relationship. And a relationship always goes through ups and downs, it’s like a wave. So part of the wave of relationship, part of the wave of life is going down and in the trough of that wave, at the bottom of the wave you might feel the relationship is boring, you’re not that connected anymore, nothing’s happening, you don’t feel passionate, and usually it’s like, it’s because my partner is not doing something right—they’re not providing the stimulus for me to feel passionate, for me to feel excited, for me to feel alive.
So there’s this tendency to always look at the other as the problem, which is what’s getting acted out on the world at large. It’s always like looking for some group to make wrong and then forming a political base out of making this ethnic group, or whatever, wrong. That’s the basic problem. That’s the most fundamental problem I see over and over again in relationships.
And so, sometimes it’s easy in couples’ work, because people are fairly open and flexible, to help them see that and to help them reorient to, instead of making the other wrong, saying, “Opening up where I am, feeling vulnerable where I’m feeling—if I’m not feeling alive in the relationship, what’s going on inside me? What am I touching in myself? Maybe I’m touching my own deadness, maybe I’m touching my own numbness, maybe I’m touching my own sense of deficiency,” and make a relationship with that, and then that starts to open things up again.
But some couples are so dedicated to the blame game, and some people really thrive on the blame game. I don’t know, for some reason, that’s their structure, and some couples are very hard to wean off of that. It’s very hard to.
TS: You talk in your book, Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships, about these grievances, you call them, and how we hold onto grievances and how hard it is for some people to 100 percent let go of a grievance, perhaps something that could be quite old. And you shared in the book about your own process of working through your grievances with your mother. And, you know, I was curious about that in that, these things that seem so old, and why is it so hard for us to let go of them? And I’m curious what you discovered for yourself in your own life about that?
JW: Yes, I mean, one thing I think I discovered, which I think is fairly true for many people, is that my whole sense of self—ego self, the ego self being the defensive self, the self that’s created in childhood for the purpose of survival and defense and protection—just a really humbling discovery that my whole sense of self, ego self, was built, was structured around grievance, actually. At the core of it is actually grievance, so the ego forms around grievance, and that’s very humbling to see that, oh wow, it’s really built into the whole character structure.
Now it isn’t for everybody, for many people it is. You know, I’ve gone through a process of forgiving my parents and understanding them, and understanding where they were wounded, where they were cut off, why they couldn’t—and I ultimately come back to, people don’t have any choice because they’re driven by unconscious patterns, so ultimately, it’s not their fault. It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s just that we’re all working on this kind of huge task of becoming human, becoming conscious in a body—a form of this body which has all of these feelings and all these thoughts, and [laughs] trying to function in a sane way is a huge challenge. So, those are some of the things—the main thing.
TS: What do you think best allowed you to drop or let go of this grievance posture?
JW: Well, in just practical terms, it was when my mother started to die, actually. So, suddenly something in me just went, “Oh, she’s dying. Oh. I care about her. Oh. I just want to be here for her.” And it just heightened my sensitivity to the pain she was in. I just started to see all the beautiful qualities in her, actually, and I went back and dug out a bunch of old photographs of her in her 20s and 30s and made a whole scrapbook of them, and just kind of like, something about, like, when we realize someone’s going to die, things get very real and genuine, and that’s what happened for me. So it was a very healing process, actually, for her death and after her death, for me.
TS: Well, you know, John, just to ask a kind of final question here that summarizes, in some ways, our conversation, which is as I’m listening to you and I’m hearing you describe this core wound in us, and how many of us respond with these grievances of all kinds, and how hard it is to let go of them, and how long it takes in our life, and the whole process, I kind of feel like I have a deep respect for the map you’re laying out, and it makes sense to me, and I’m sort of left with, “Wow, it takes our whole lifetime to work out this core wound, and this is so much harder and more complicated than I ever thought it would be when I was a young person.” How do you relate to the depth, complexity, what seems sort of time consuming, heart consuming process of healing the core wound of the heart?
JW: Right. Well on the one hand, I have to admit, just to be honest, there have been many times in my life where I’ve sort of thrown up my hands and said, “this is ridiculous, this is endless,” but on the other hand, it’s said in some spiritual traditions that the path is the goal. The journey itself is the goal.
I think that part of the problem is that we think that we somehow have to cure everything and fix everything and become these marvelously open, enlightened human beings and that’s what our goal is. The problem with that is then we are trying to reach that goal, and that goal becomes separated from the process itself. So one of the really important learnings along the way is the path—the journey is the goal, the journey is what we’re doing. We can’t proceed in any other way, other than working on our karmic unconscious, conditioned material, and leveraging that as a way to become more open. That’s what we’re doing here on this planet.
Human beings are a marvelous experiment of the universe, trying to bring together these spirit and matter, these completely opposite realms, and we’re the experiment. And our life is this experiment. The journey itself is somehow really learning to—and this has been challenging for me, I have to say—learning to just appreciate the journey, the process, and learn to actually hold all of my experience in love, basically, is what it ultimately comes down to. Hold the whole human range, the whole human experience in love—loving kindness, loving understanding, loving compassion, loving caring, loving openness, and that’s the challenge.
So it’s not, the thing isn’t like we have to get everything fixed before we get to this goal of perfection, but to bring love into all the areas that are so wounded and imperfect and human. Human is so sensitive and so vulnerable, actually, and so open in that way, and capable of such deep feeling. So the more we actually are aware and open to our own conditioning and pain and so forth, the more openness and love actually develops. It’s the way we develop our love.
Love actually starts to become not just this—in the book I call it “absolute love.” Absolute love is our nature as love, the love that naturally radiates from the heart or from the universe that’s already always there. That’s great, but bringing it through the relative form, the relative human being, the relative pain, the relative wounding, the relative ego structure, bringing love into all those dark corners—that’s the real path of being a human being. That’s a beautiful path, and once we can get away from the idea that the whole purpose is just getting happy and fixing everything, which will actually just retard the journey quite a lot.
TS: I think that’s a very important point, and I’m glad that we’re ending on it as something to really highlight. I think in our culture, especially, I think there’s such an emphasis on the idea of some happy outcome, even when you—as soon as you use the word “healing” —healing the wound of the heart, like there’s going to be some time, yeah.
JW: Right. Healing it ultimately means healing your relationship with it. So it’s no longer something that you reject or judge or avoid. That’s the real healing. I think all of these wounds are with us, in the form of a sensitivity—you’re always going to feel sensitive to certain things in our lives, and it’s not going to go away, but we can heal our relationship to it so our sense of—ultimately, it’s not about getting happy in the sense of having happiness be the content of our experience all the time. I think it’s more like having a sense of well-being and it comes from being able to relate to the happy experiences and relate to the unhappy experiences equally. Be able to hold everything in awareness and love, and then that creates a sense of well-being that goes beyond the conventional happiness.
TS: I’ve been speaking with John Welwood. He has recorded with Sounds True a program called Conscious Relationships in which we examine the unconscious issues that come between us and the relationship that our spirit yearns for. John, thank you for being with us on Insights at the Edge.
JW: Thank you.
TS: I’ve learned a lot from our conversation.
JW: Great. Me too. [laughs]
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey.