Toward a Psychology of Awakening


John Welwood's Toward a Psychology of Awakening is an attempt to explain how Buddhism and psychotherapy can work together to bring about both personal and spiritual transformation. Welwood tackled this monumental task by first showing how psychology and spirituality can be integrated. He then discussed how psychotherapy can be understood in a spiritual context. Finally, Welwood showed how psychological and spiritual awakening can occur within a relationship, rather than the conventional notion these two could only occur in a solitary context like a monastery.
Welwood's material is well researched. Unfortunately, it is also barely readable. It is not that his writing is terrible. On the contrary, Welwood wrote as one would expect an experienced academic would write on a topic of this magnitude. However, that is where the problem lies. This book is like reading a programming textbook on how to integrate spirituality and psychology. The information is sound, but it is also boring to read.

Some of the best books I have read on psychology and spirituality tend to be less mechanical and more personal. When dealing with these two weighty ideas and how they work together, I think a better way is to err on the side of simplicity. Rather than fill 300 pages with theories and case studies, I think breaking it down to simple teachings would be more effective in showing how psychology and spirituality work together in the whole person.

Despite my criticisms, there is much to learn in these pages, however difficult it may be to find. Welwood did well explaining the difference between the horizontal thinking of Western psychology and the vertical thinking of Eastern Buddhism. Regarding meditation, Welwood explained the importance of regarding mediation as a road to a nondualistic experience rather than simply a selfish journey to the unconscious mind. In fact, Welwood spent a great deal of time talking about transcending dualistic forms of thinking, especially when thinking about divisions between the conditioned and unconditioned mind.

Here is an interesting passage in this book about emptiness:

A sudden clap of thunder is awesome not just because of the sound, but because of the silence it has interrupted, as [William] James points out: “Into the awareness of the thunder itself the awareness of the previous silence creeps and continues; for what we hear when the thunder crashes is not thunder pure, but thunder-breaking-upon-silence-and-contrasting-with-it?. The feeling of the thunder is also a feeling of the silence just as gone.” (52)

Journeying into this emptiness will help us experience the awakening Welwood wrote about in this book. Meditation offers us a method to walk into the emptiness and into a unification of our total life.

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