Interview with ‘conscious relationship’ author, mentor, John Welwood
There’s a wise old adage that teaches us that in order for a tree’s branches to reach to heaven, it’s roots must penetrate hell. Similarly, the wondrous lotus blossom issues forth from muddy origins. Dialoguing with San Francisco intimacy guru John Welwood, we discover that in our quest for the ultimate love and lover relationship, -the coveted soulmateship, today’s conscious partners face the hard work of straddling extremes, even welcoming them, finding sanctuary in the breath that lives between ecstacy and agony. On the wings of releasing his latest work, Love and Awakening: Discovering the Sacred Path of Intimate Relationship (Harper/Collins, Feb ‘96), Welwood speaks to us about the challenging New Paradigm for coupleship, exploring how unions made in heaven are also made in hell, and the soul labors required of us.
You’ve remarked that today’s conscious couples are in “uncharted waters”: would you elaborate?
JW: I think our consciousness is evolving, -slowly. (laughter) If we go back to the 30s and 40s, people literally got married because they liked someone’s car.
Now it’s because we like someone’s guru or diet.
JW: (Laughter) At least we are more conscious of what’s really involved in relationships, knowing that it’s difficult, whereas a hundred or two hundred years ago, it was basically all socially prescribed and people didn’t really have to think about it.
Or didn’t get to think about it…to question anything…
JW: In the twentieth century, we’ve gone to the pleasure principle, making pleasure and security the basis for relationships, but that hasn’t worked out very well, either. We need to look at a bigger picture. As with the whole situation on the planet right now, for relationships to thrive, we really need to look at what we’re doing. We can’t just go stumbling along unconsciously any more. We must take into consideration the purpose of human life, who and what we are… So today, the real challenge in relationships is in having to ask, what IS going to keep us going, what’s the point of it, anyway? After you get your needs filled, -what’s next? What’s the meaning, the purpose? It has to tie in with the question of our reason for being here at all.
I’ve observed that many conscious persons in our new age communities at large, have put a new twist on what relationships ideally ought to be with the old, romantic idea of living happily ever after, but now in the form of finding our “soulmates.” We go through one relationship after another, explaining our failures as a matter of not having really found the ‘right’ soulmate: comment?
JW: The soul connection is not all sweetness and light! It’s more like finding a worth opponent. When you meet someone with whom you feel the strong attractions of a soul connection, to quote French writer Suzanne Lilar, you’re going to “live -and die- most intensely” with that person. Dying is part of it. (laughter) It’s not about the new age version of happily ever after: it’s about seeing your partner’s deepest potential behind the facades, and her seeing yours…And in order to reach that potential, we’re going to have to break out of the restrictions of our conditioned personalities or egos, what I call our soul cages, by feeling, accepting and being conscious that we are in fact stuck in them…I use the analogy of the vast palace of the soul, of our real potential, and how as we grow up, because of shame, pain, fear, trying to live up to other’s ideas of who we should be, we begin to shut off rooms, ending up trying to live in a single room. Soul connections foreshadow soulwork, reopening these spaces of our deep humanness together.
An ex beau of mine painfully exclaimed that if ours was the “right relationship,” the “work” that we acknowledged must be done, somehow wouldn’t hurt so much. Commitments weree waylaid or shunned, looking for someone more perfect/less painful to work out the issues with. How do we know when it’s time to just let go, call it “a healing relationship,” or stay put and make a more judicious commitment?
JW: We can learn from every relationship whether or not it’s a mating one, because each can bring you up against the ways you’ve closed yourself down into a one room cell in the vast palace of your being… opportunities to wake up out of your narrow visioned trance into the whole of who you are… The vehicle for that is usually pain, coming up against the bars of the cage or walls of that cell…how we limit and shut ourselves down from what’s possible. Now any kind of relationship, if used that way, can help you with what’s stirred. What’s different about a soul connection is that you both see what together you could wake up that’s dormant in each other, and really desire to do so.
Dr. Welwood, you’ve defined a “heart connection” as what occurs whenever we’re really being present for one another, feeling acceptance and appreciation. If a “soul connection” is about seeing our greater Possibilities, it also implies that we have both strong attractions and repulsions, a compelling pursuing and distancing pattern, approaching and retreating from the bars of the soul cage: Would a “soul mate” connection indicate agreement on some level to simply stay and do the work?
JW: I’m a little allergic to the term “soulmate,” because it is bandied around… Sure, when you actually see that the other person could really help you to wake up in the way you need to, and vice versa. That isn’t something you can have with very many people.A long-term relationship brings us up against all the obstacles to residing there -whatever prevents us from being ourselves… Choosing to work with the obstacles deepens connection with self and other, providing a lifelong, mutual sense of path and direction.
You and your wife Jennifer seem to be soulmates: how did it happen for you? Did you know it immediately?
JW: There are different ways it can happen. For me, us, it was pretty quick. Our eyes met, those windows of the soul. (laughs) It was very simple and went on from there. Then again, I’ve known couples who have gotten married and over time, pass through many levels of relation, deaths and rebirths, developing a soul connection over time. And we were very opposite in some ways.
Opposites attracting, and complimenting, a dance of polarities. There’s another concept you speak of in the relational dance: “the razor’s edge.” What is this about?
JW: Let’s use the palace of potentials analogy again. You’ve wound up living in this one room cell, but now you’re falling in love, and you start naturally to expand, to open up, realizing you’re actually living in this huge palace you’d forgotten all about
-and it’s all because of YOU, my love! (laughter)
JW: -but you start to get scared, because you were so comfortable in your little one room flat, and what’s out there is all dark and unknown…The razor’s edge is what you encounter moving into new territory without having quite fully left the old. It’s shaky, scary, exciting and it’s one of the most creative places to be in a relationship. You’re expanding, but you don’t know what exactly.
Holding the tension between expansion and contraction, bursting into awareness… Back to the idea that growing great relationships is a labor, albeit of love, what kinds of work might conscious couples expect to do?
JW: Take the alchemical analogy that our basic natures are like gold, but embedded in the iron ore of our conditioned patterns. So our relationships are about refining the gold, melting it out of those conditions, freeing up the beautiful qualities of ourselves, our courage, love, our kindness and compassion, our power and liberating them…We usually come up against the lack of these first, and the key is to be willing to feel their loss…A good relationship will always bring us up against the places where we’ve shut down. We need a way to be willing and able to be present with where we’re contracted, asleep, or half dead, to encourage the breaking open of the heart, the breaking open of our shells…We need a Vision, because the chemical process does include this death part, this painful process of letting go of the old, small self. It won’t happen overnight; it’s a gradual transformation that requires the vision that this is what will always happen if we allow it. Falling in love gives you this wonderful taste, an initital inspiration of what the qualities are that you could have access to: beauty, strength, magic, wonder, openness, joy…And then we fall back into our conditioned patterns, and it’s like we have to go back to reopen the rooms in that palace one by one. (laughter) But I had closed those doors for a reason, so I’m going to have to face those old fears and rejected parts of myself.
-the shamed parts we thought were unacceptable…unacknowledged, unloved
JW: -everything you rejected, everything you shut down, didn’t understand or closed off.
-And if the person I’m wanting to love me were to SEE all that, s/he’d run from me, just like I did!
JW: It truly becomes a warrior path of developing awareness, loving-kindness and unconditional presence with yourself in the places where you think you’re unworthy, and then extending this consciousness to your partner, to the relationship, and to the planet as a whole. We can only be as intimate with another as we can be with ourselves. Our deepest, intimate moments are those in which we’re not so much being together, as being together. This is the challenge we’re faced with today. We’re pioneers, and all pioneers undergo hardship, loss of direction, doubt. We haven’t got traditions and role models to fall back on; We’re all pioneers in this new land of intimacy and soulful fulfillment. (1665 words)
(Published in Whole Life Times, Los Angeles as a Valentine’s issue feature, Feb ‘96)