Toward a Psychology of Awakening

The Big Ideas

  • True psychological and spiritual progress can occur only when we form a genuine relationship with painful experiences.
  • Meditation and other spiritual practices send us continually back into the unknown.
  • The unknown allows us to embrace a broader perspective, saving us from endless preoccupation with our own narrow point of view.
  • Self-reflection is one way to change our relationship with our pain.

Neutrino’s Nutshell

To stay alive, we must breathe. But breathing doesn’t mean just breathing in, or just breathing out—it’s a continued process in which we rely on one action in order to perform the other. In the same vein, this book describes Western psychology and Eastern spirituality as interdependent philosophies that are most effective when combined into one approach to personal growth and caring for others.

The East and the West are culturally different. As the author explains it, one of the most striking differences between Buddhism and Western psychology is the role of the individual ego. Where the Western approach to personality and identity can be compared to breathing in, the Eastern view of non-grasping and not-knowing can be seen as the equivalent process of breathing out. Far from seeing these approaches as opposing or incompatible, this book makes the case for their equal importance to individual happiness.

Welwood incorporates Buddhist and psychological principles in order to examine several concepts through an interdisciplinary lens. In doing so, he defines a psychologically-influenced mindfulness approach to the following ideas:

  • Depression: When viewed from a Buddhist perspective, feeling depressed can be seen as a loss of heart. In contrast, the experience of deep sadness can be understood as a fullness of heart, which happens when we come to know the transitory nature of our human existence. We can cultivate the ability to distinguish between our actual feelings and the complicated stories that we tell ourselves about the feelings. In this way, we regain our hearts and allow true emotion to move through us.
  • Felt senses: Rather than regarding strong emotion as an alien presence that threatens to overwhelm us, we can acknowledge that feelings are simply the energy of our own body and heart that is in motion. We can begin to get friendly with emotions by first touching into our “felt sense” of what is happening—the physical sensations that accompany emotion.
  • Personality: Western psychology holds that our personalities are fixed states that are conditioned by our life experiences. By integrating Buddhist principles, we can instead view our individual personality as a changing path that leads us forward. Interacting with our experiences in a nonjudgmental and friendly way gives us access to our true unconditioned nature of basic goodness.
  • Reflection: Our experience is not an external thing that we need to change or fix; it is simply a mix of sensations and observations that we can get to know, in the role of a mindful witness. We do this through the use of “bare attention”: simply being with how we feel without trying to change or escape what we feel. In a reflective state, we are not doing, but simply being.


“Whatever problem, question, or confusion we have, whatever seems impossible in our lives—if we go toward it, see it, feel it, make a relationship with it, use it—becomes our path.”

IMEO (In My Eudaimonian Opinion)

This book presents an integrated view of Western psychotherapy approaches and Buddhist spiritual principles. Although its content can be somewhat abstract at times, the author generally uses accessible language and concrete examples to explore these concepts. This book is not designed for a general audience. It will be valuable to a parent or teacher with a psychology background who is interested in Eastern spiritual principles; however, those who are new to psychology might prefer a more straightforward Buddhism reference for ordinary readers.

Take action, humanoid!

To enhance psychological and spiritual growth in your own life, try one of these action steps for a few days and write down what you observe.

  • Practice noticing the “felt sense” within a particular situation. How is your body responding to what is happening? Acknowledge sensations such as tightness, shakiness, feeling hot, or feeling fatigued. Later on, reflect on what feelings might be associated with each sensation; for example, fatigue might be associated in your experience with disappointment.
  • Discern between actual feelings and the stories you tell yourself about the feelings. For example, “I felt stupid” is a story, not a feeling; “I felt scared that I might do something wrong” is more descriptive of an emotional experience.

The Deets

Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation
Author: John Welwood, Ph.D.
Publication date: 2000 (330 pages)

1 thought on “Toward a Psychology of Awakening”

  1. This book review has me very intrigued about this book. A lot of interesting points, but the one I found the most interesting was the Buddhist perspective on depression (a loss of heart) vs. sadness (a fullness of heart). It seems like the words “sad” and “depressed” are interchangeable in Western society, but actually I think they’re very different things, so I like the Buddhist perspective. I’ll definitely be checking out this book!


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