NIGEL WELLINGS: Somebody / Nobody

Image: Machig Labrön gouache thangka on gessoed cotton

FOR FORTY YEARS psychoanalytic psychotherapist and Buddhist Nigel Wellings has engaged with the relationship between therapy and meditation. Here he talks with poet and therapist (and former client) Paul Deaton

Nigel Wellings

PD: You’ve moved!

NW: I have. 

PD: You’re on the north side of Bath with fields around you …

NW: Yeah, we have fields around us … (nice long chuckle)

PD: I remember, when I was finishing off with you as a client, which would be around 2014, you were telling me that it was time to retire …

NW: That’s another one of my failures! I’m not taking on any more long-term patients, but I’m not stopping with the ones that I’ve got. Probably two and a half days a week, but light days, and I’ve branched out into something I really don’t have a name for, which on my website is called spiritual mentoring. I hate the word ‘spiritual’, that’s why I’m wriggling around. But it is to do with people’s spiritual practice.

PD: What’s so wrong with the word ‘spiritual’?

NW: It sounds pretentious to me and also implies a split between what’s spiritual and what’s not. Something I’m not on board with. I’m happier with simply being present with our experience. Not starting an internal war by picking and choosing what’s spiritual and what’s not in us. Those who I work with in this role generally bring me their meditation practice and, hopefully, how it is being integrated into their life. It gives me something useful and pleasurable to do, because I hardly practise psychotherapy anymore. I’m no longer a member of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) or my analytic organisations. I only see people online now – it’s wonderful.

PD: You feel released?

NW: Yes. I can work from anywhere. I also like working online – loads of therapists hate it. I’ve seen the faces of patients who I have worked with for many, many years. Faces, so close up, that I realise they have freckles that I never knew about. (Big chuckles)

PD: You haven’t found it two-dimensional, or a loss in picking up questions from the body?

NW: I’ve realised there’s so much more information in the face that I haven’t been able to see. And from my side, I feel I can look away from someone for a longer period of time because we’re not actually looking at each other, we’re looking at the screen. When I’m working down in Devon there’s a large window which looks over a wide valley, and I can look away with a very small movement. It’s given me a much greater sense of my own space when with somebody online and perhaps has given them more space also.

PD: Hmm, okay.

NW: I also love the funny stuff, like everybody now eats and has drinks and even turns up with the top half dressed formally and the bottom in their pyjamas, and then they forget that they mustn’t get up, stuff like that. (Huge chuckle) The kids might come in and say hi.

PD: And there’s a builder in the background.

NW: Oh, absolutely. I know that’s anathema to a lot of therapists but I just think it’s life and I love it. It makes me laugh. I like the informality. People now send me messages with a kiss. They never did that before. So, what do you do when you get a kiss? Do you send one back?

PD: Do you send one back? (Big hearty laugh)

PD: It’s hard to know, isn’t it? Will you get another kiss?

NW: Interesting, isn’t it? It’s all really interesting.

PD: What I’m curious about are the two threads to your work. We’ve just mentioned psychotherapy but you also have a love affair with Buddhism?

NW: Lifelong love affair. I might even be married!

In Buddhist language how things truly are is both empty and clear. Emptiness here doesn’t mean a void, an empty dark space but rather a universe that is always in the process of becoming and that is suffused with awareness

PD: Which came first? Buddhism or psychotherapy? 

NW: Buddhism.

PD: Tell me.

NW: Well, I got involved in Buddhism in my late teens and went to India immediately after I finished my degree. I studied Buddhist iconography in a Tibetan refugee community at Tashi Jong in northern India, up in the mountains near Dharamsala. I had already developed an interest in Buddhism through my reading and also attending a ten-day Goenka Vipassana retreat, which was a bit of a Buddhist boot camp. There was – is – just something about Buddhism that deeply fascinates me and, I guess, has given me lifelong meaning. I was the hippy cliché of searching for spiritual truth in India.

PD: So nothing else tugged at you in India, only Buddhism? Not Hinduism?

NW: No, I had already been interested in some Hindu teachers, but frankly they scared me. Each one being a little world unto themselves made it a bit too tyrannical for me. There being many lamas all teaching the same thing made it less individual, less open to potential abuse. It was also drier – I’m rubbish at devotion which is such a big thing in Hinduism.

Later I came back to England and lived in a Buddhist community in the Lake District called Manjushri Institute. Whilst I was there, Dora Kalff, a Jungian analyst, arrived. She’d created Sandplay, a form of non-verbal therapy in which the patient places objects in a sand tray within the presence of the therapist. She talked to us about this and was herself very interested in Buddhism. I’d already started reading Jung while in India and was curious about his exploration of alchemy as a psychological process, and now meeting her I was absolutely captivated.

PD: That sounds like a pivotal moment?

NW: Yes, it was. I was about 26, but it all seemed to be impossible because I was too young and training to be an analyst cost a fortune. There were just so many obstacles in the way. However, shortly afterwards something else turned up during a retreat: I was invited by a Tibetan lama whom I’d first met in India to go and live with him and his community in Italy. His name was Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, a professor at the Oriental University in Naples and an important teacher of Dzogchen, a contemplative Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It’s the subject of my latest book: Dzogchen, Who’s Who & What’s What in the Great Perfection. Norbu Rinpoche was a complex character, learned, iconoclastic, fierce and kind. I actually think he saved my life by plucking me out of a trajectory that was going nowhere. I went to live in his Buddhist community and taught drawing to his students. My life for this period consisted of painting commissions, thangkas, for members of the community, and also drawings for Norbu Rinpoche’s and others’ books. It was a lot of fun!

Guru Rinpoche

Guru Rinpoche gouache thangka on gessoed cotton

PD: That sounds like a wonderful life, for someone in their twenties?

NW: It was and this period gave me the opportunity to work out something about Buddhist icons – the images of various deities and teachers – and how Jung’s work gives us access to understanding them. It was all really quite simple. They might be regarded as archetypal images that symbolise latent potentials within each of us. Enlightened qualities such as wisdom and compassion. By embodying the energy in any particular deity, we might begin to cultivate, or better, uncovertheir quality within ourselves. Of course, this also started the idea that these archetypal propensities might be represented by any number of images and the possibility that the deities that came in the clothes of Indian and Tibetan culture may also be clothed in the forms found in the West. The goddess of wisdom presenting as either Prajnaparamita or Sophia.

There was also something else that I really liked about Tibetan iconography, its impersonality. Many people I have met are surprised when I say it is not about self-expression. In fact, the less self that is present, the better it is. Learning from my drawing teacher involved many repetitions of copying his drawings until I could reproduce them perfectly. If something of my own crept in he would ruthlessly cross it out in red. I know this idea drives many people crazy but I liked it. I now realise it was a relief from the relentless narcissism of ‘all about me’ that we suffer from in the West.

PD: So, when was the call to psychotherapy?

NW: After some time, I felt I was living too much on the periphery of society and it was too limiting, so I decided to come back to England, to Devon. And fairly soon after arriving – this is very dramatic – I was standing on a windswept hill in the middle of the night and I suddenly heard a voice that said: ‘Be a psychotherapist!’

Transpersonal psychology was intrigued by altered states of consciousness and valued things such as t’ai chi, meditation and the imagination as having legitimate clinical uses 

So, the next day I went down to the local Lloyds Bank and said please lend me £25,000, I’m a good investment, and they said no! (Big chuckles, ha, ha) I didn’t quite know what to do next. And then someone called Joan Swallow turned up at Dartington to give a talk. I had a lot of contact with Dartington at that time and she was one of the four directors of the Centre for Transpersonal Psychology (CTP), and I thought she was wonderful and inspiring.

PD: For readers who don’t know, what is Transpersonal Psychology?

NW: Well it had come into being during the late 1960s. It was really a product of its time, it saw itself as a new approach to psychotherapy that did not pathologize or simply ignore the spiritual element in people’s lives. It was intrigued by altered states of consciousness and valued things such as t’ai chi, meditation and the imagination as having legitimate clinical uses. What I didn’t know at that time was that I would end up being a director of training at CTP myself, and that I’d be centrally involved in recreating its structure and curriculum, enabling it to enter the new world of the United Kingdom Council of Psychotherapy and also writing a book about it: Nothing To Lose: Psychotherapy, Buddhism and Living Life.

It is amazing, really, when I look back.

PD: I’m curious to come back to that earlier conscious decision of yours to make a contribution and follow a calling. Your moment on a Devon hill. Hearing the internal voice wanting something more, to be a psychotherapist. It interests me, because it holds, in it, the seed to that other conundrum: ‘Do I accept Western society and consumerist systems – or do I remove myself? Do I find a small community?’ Or in the words of Erich Fromm, whom I’ve been reading, ‘How do I gain liberation?’

NW: Yes, and in this case I wanted to be part of a larger world. As a thangka painter I was a big fish within a small Buddhist pool, but I wanted to have a bigger voice and a bigger impact, so although I’m pointing the finger about narcissism, here were my own narcissistic needs which needed to be answered …

PD: You’d entered psychotherapy training, but Buddhism obviously never went away?

NW: It went away whilst I was studying psychotherapy for a while. My first Jungian analyst despised anything that wasn’t Jung – he would slap his hands down on the side of his chair, jump up and start yelling at me if he didn’t like something.

PD: Holy moly!

NW: Yes! I eventually realised we were enacting my adolescence. I read a book on transference and counter-transference and suddenly understood what was happening, but when I took the book in he went through the ceiling. He said that if I wanted to work like this I could leave right now. He was a classical Jungian and thought everything else was the devil’s work! (Huge laughter)

The psychiatrist and mindfulness teacher Jack Engler coined a phrase, first you have to become a somebody before you can become a nobody

So, I hid my Buddhism under the cushion and kind of left it alone, but by the end of those fourteen years of analysis I was having frequent dreams about Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. Meeting him, talking with him, being in the community again, being brought from hiding in the back of the room to sit in the front. My whole unconscious went into overdrive to reconnect me to my teacher – and that’s what I did.

PD: There’s a consistent thread there, isn’t there? Not only a consistent thread, it seems, but that the pull to Buddhism, then and now once more, is right to the fore?

NW: Oh, it is. It totally is. If I practise psychotherapy, if I practise it at all, it’s a Buddhist version. How I practise now has no relationship to psychoanalysis or Jung. And it’s probably changed a lot more since I was working with you, actually. It’s continued to evolve.

PD: In your book Transpersonal Psychotherapy: Theory and Practice, you mention a variety of thinkers that are on the Buddhist end of the psychotherapy spectrum.

NW: Transpersonal psychology in the United States had a very big Buddhist influence, whereas in the UK, it had a very strong Jungian influence. But actually, they were equal twin tracks running through it. Contributing to that book, I discovered Ken Wilber and, most importantly, John Welwood. It’s John Welwood’s 1996 paper Reflection and presence: The dialectic of self-knowledge that has principally influenced my entire psychotherapeutic career.

PD: But if I’m right, when you released that book, a compendium of perspectives and insights on transpersonal psychotherapy, you’d only just arrived in the space yourself? So, that’s brave?!

NW: Yeah! I mean, within the Centre for Transpersonal Psychology, I was already known as a psychotherapist, and as a supervisor, albeit a rather young one. But then when we had to create a course that the UKCP would accredit, we had to employ lots of people. And I wanted those people to have a sense of belonging and ownership of this new form of the Centre. So, Liz McCormick and I did that book to give each of them a voice. Sometimes we wished we hadn’t! (chuckles)But, that was our attempt to give ownership of the new CTP to its staff.

PD So it’s an attempt at inclusivity?

NW: And equality. Because neither of us was happy with this hierarchical structure that happens in the psychotherapy world. I was really excited because I’d been looking for a relationship between psychotherapy and Buddhism for some years. And suddenly, when I read John Welwood’s paper, I realised he’d done the job for me. And he’d done it perfectly. He also asked why it is that psychotherapeutic training does not teach mindful presence. And I thought, yeah, why not? And so, I formed much of the new curriculum at CTP all around that paper.

But when Buddhism talks about impermanence, it’s really radical. It’s saying that in every single micro-moment, there is change

PD: Did you ever meet him?

NW: Yeah. He felt a little distant, as anybody who writes about relationships is bound to be. We always write about the things that we’re so bad at!

PD: We’re solving them for ourselves?

NW: Yeah. I’m rubbish at being present. (Laughter)

PD: But, it’s fascinating, then, isn’t it? I mean, I don’t know, this sounds like a slightly banal thing to say, but then does that mean our work – when we’re writing – is a mirror for us, a blank space, a creative space, so there’s a projection of our unsolved-ness going on in some way?

NW: You come to know yourself, don’t you? It’s like a mirror, really, for me, rather than a blank space. And it’s a sort of ongoing journey. It’s really important to clarify things and I love being able to say complicated things in a simple way. I hate writing which excludes people. I think if there’s something worth saying you can say it simply. It’s important to me to include and be equal.

PD: So Welwood is important to you? And Wilber?

NW: Wilber less so. I gave myself the task at that time to read a lot of Wilber and learn his system. But, he’s not an attractive personality and people either treat him like a guru or dislike him for being arrogant. So, although I’m actually impressed by him intellectually, and his ability to practise meditation is phenomenal, I still don’t really like him. So, if you don’t like something, it kind of drops away, doesn’t it?

PD: That idea Wilber has – I’ve jotted it down here in my notes from your Naked Presence chapter in Transpersonal Psychotherapy – ‘of disidentification with the contents of the ego.’ So, in what way is this sense of naked presence, as a way of being, for you a deeper illumination than even psychotherapeutic theory, an illumination that you just couldn’t find elsewhere?

NW: Oh, that’s the big question! That is the most important question of the entire conversation! Buddhism is all about thepsychology of perception. The basic premise is that our perception is distorted by our previous experience and that there’s a possibility of letting go of these distortions and experiencing things as they truly are, and by doing so we become less emotionally conflicted. In Buddhist language how things truly are is both empty and clear. Emptiness here doesn’t mean a void, an empty dark space and that’s it, but rather a universe that is always in the process of becoming and that is suffused with awareness. In meditation, emptiness is experienced as a spaciousness that knows itself, and this is likened to a wide-open sky, perfectly clear and without limits, and that the thoughts, the emotions, the behaviours, the moods, the temperaments, all those components that make up a person – are like clouds. They arise and dissolve within that open space of awareness.

Most of us, and this includes psychotherapists, are fixated on the nature of the clouds, and there’s an idea that some are better and some worse. But fundamentally they’re all clouds. What a Buddhist outlook says is, yes, okay, those clouds are there; they have their own significance, and their own importance, and their own history, but there’s also a ground of being, the open space of awareness, in which all of this occurs. If we can shift our identity back out of the clouds into that ground of being, (from the Buddhist perspective) this is a place of absolute freedom. A place of absolute healing. And that is a place where conflict comes to an end, forever. So that’s why it’s important.

PD: That’s a great answer with clarity! And this comes up in what you’ve written about recently, that there’s space in life, if one takes that view of emptiness; but it’s a paradoxical place, because, while it does contain all those variables of suffering, it also contains, in the emptiness, a strange fullness in the absence of anything. It was this in your book, Present with Suffering: Being with the Things That Hurt, that I really connected to. If one’s able to feel comfortable with oneself, and maybe with what has hurt, one is less intimidated by that emptiness (and the dark inner clouds). One can find something nurturing, positive, freeing, liberating. It’s not a space to be afraid of.

Norbu Rinpoche was a complex character, learned, iconoclastic, fierce and kind. I think he saved my life by plucking me out of a trajectory that was going nowhere

NW: Emptiness is a horribly confusing word! We use it to describe all sorts of painful emotional experiences, as you have done here, but within the Buddhist context it has an entirely different meaning. The Present with Suffering book explores both of these meanings and their relationship. Another word for the Buddhist take on emptiness is just simply impermanence, all things being transitory. That probably is the greatest truth of Buddhism. They are interchangeable concepts. But the way we normally think of ourselves, it’s almost as if, yes, we accept we are impermanent, but there’s also somehow a solid sense of me that remains at the centre. But when Buddhism talks about impermanence, it’s really radical. It’s saying that in every single micro-moment, there is change. And this thing that we think of as ourselves and defend as a solid sense of a self, a solid identity, is also being continuously eroded by change. I think many people can smell this truth, and this triggers the resistance and fear of practising meditation that I talk about in Why Can’t I Meditate?: How to Get Your Mindfulness Practice on Track. Emptiness, a fluid self always changing, is frightening and it threatens our sense of identity. However, while things are continuously dying away, they’re also in the process of continuous becoming. The two things go together, they’re inseparable. So, you could easily say that emptiness is fullness!

PD: Yes! I do completely relate to that sense. And in line with what you’re saying, this is a place of being, of being with ourselves?

NW: Yes. The fullness of manifest being. But with a caveat. It never, ever remains the same! One of the ways this profound insight translates into psychotherapy is that a psychotherapy which is focused primarily on creating a solid sense of self can never succeed, because the self by its very nature is not solid. It has no unchanging essential self-nature, it’s always in the process of change. Of course, we unknowingly try to avoid this reality by creating self-narratives. Stories about me and who I am. Now, I’m more than happy to help someone who’s very fractured, someone who has attachment issues, someone who doesn’t know who they are in an ordinary way, to create a personal narrative. A conventional psychotherapy that helps knowing who we are. That forms authority. That enables stepping into life. All these sorts of things are necessary and valuable. But there’s another step, which is, once you’ve got this, you then have to turn around and look at it and go, okay, so what’s the nature of this self that I’ve created and that I’m trying to defend? Going another whole step that takes you out of the identification with the ephemeral and transitory clouds into the much greater spacious awareness in which change is its very nature.

The psychiatrist and mindfulness teacher Jack Engler coined a phrase: You have to be somebody before you can be nobody. And that absolutely is the key phrase that encapsulates this journey that I’ve just described. I now work much more with being the nobody – because I don’t really work with people who are very hurt anymore. I work with people who do have a solid sense of self and then begin to find it onerous. It’s like a coat that they no longer want – how can it be taken off?

PD: This is exactly where I’m at. I’ve got the sense, as Jung would say in his ideas about the stages of life, that we can’t live the second half of life by the same values that we’ve lived the first. To me it feels that the transpersonal element is a value system for the second half of life, more than for the first.

When I worked with you as your client, and if I think of my wounding, some of those things that you say seem really important because I struggled to have any sense of self-authority or self-belief at all. And I was thinking about this, and what was it that I wanted when I reached out and sought to get help? What was I seeking? I wasn’t entirely sure, but what I’ve jotted down here is that what I wanted was for someone to take me seriously, because I’d felt that nobody ever had. But putting that back into the Buddhist perspective, I flirted in the loosest sense with Western Buddhism when I had cancer aged thirty and was thrown from the tracks and made to feel mortal. I had a deep crisis at that time and spiritual exploration was an attempt to recover and restore from a very fragmentary inner experience. I went on various self-healing pursuits and quests, to a Buddhist retreat in Scotland, and then to the Manjushri Institute you mentioned earlier. But I think my struggle has been to build myself up to get a sense of who I really am, then to be able to act on it, and then to be able to share it. And what I fear when I touch some of the Buddhist ideas, is losing that self, letting go of that self … 

NW: Yes!

PD: That I’ve worked –

NW: So hard …

PW: So hard, and suffered so much from not even feeling like I had one.

NW: And spent so much money on psychotherapy! (Laughing)

PD: And now I’ve got here … 

NW: Yes! It’s time to let it go! Yes, I’m afraid that’s right. It’s certainly a correct reading of Buddhism. So, you’ve done the need to be somebody and then the next bit is nobody!

PD: I do connect with this very much right now, and what I’ve managed to achieve in the last fifteen years, things that have made me feel more solid. I am also aware that I’m now in a space where I want to deconstruct them. They don’t matter to me anymore. They were valuable then, as goals, but now they don’t matter. Is this a midlife crisis? No, I think it’s a stage beyond that, a new space, of what matters to me now. I’m feeling a transition around this in the sense that I’m probably more solid than I’ve ever been, more me, but I feel a sense of being slightly lost or rather less sure, because I’m losing values and goals that no longer matter. This makes me think again of Jung. Let me quote from Jung’s Modern Man in Search for a Soul:

‘But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true, will at evening have become a lie.’

My question, then, is whether this transpersonal perspective and these Buddhist ideas are something for the second half of life?

Buddhism is all about the psychology of perception

NW: The background to that Jungian quote is that he believes that when a child is born, they’re still very close to the archetypal ground of their personality because they’ve yet to form a personal identity. Then at the middle of their life, their personal identity, the ego, is at its strongest and most opaque, alienating them from the ground. They then need to make a transition back from that opacity of a strong sense of personal self towards the archetypal ground, but this time knowing the ground consciously. This is not a regression into childhood, because we now know how our personal life uniquely expresses the collective archetypal patterns.

Buddhism thinks that’s all nonsense! (laughing) The Buddhist perspective is that our Buddha-nature, the awakened mind, is obscured from the start and that life may offer the possibility of uncovering it at any point. There were hot debates within the transpersonal psychology world between Ken Wilber, who doesn’t think Jung’s view is correct, and Michael Washburn (author of The Ego and the Dynamic Ground), who does. Yeah, I don’t think it’s quite true.

PD: Which bit. The Jungian?

NW: Yeah. Yeah.

PD: You believe in the Buddhist perspective?

NW: Yes, I do. It makes more sense. Jung obviously took his ideas from his romantic background. But he had a very poor understanding of anything else, really, beyond his European heritage. And there’s just so much evidence of very young people entering into what he would consider to be the second half of life concerns and becoming complete masters within it without missing out on anything at all.

PD: Your view is that it’s far more open?

NW: It’s not as clean-cut as he suggests. Jung likes order and symmetry. He is always creating balanced structures – his idea of the archetypal self as an ordering principle that expresses itself in the archetypal image of the mandala with its centre and four quadrants. Is all this not a projection of Jung’s own need for protection against the chaos of change? This arc of life is one of those ordering stories, but you know if you actually look at people it is not what actually happens. Most people have psychological wounds acquired during their childhood; they do nothing about them whatsoever, they become more and more defensive as they go through life and they end up very miserable, cramped and frightened at their death. This is not the story that Jung describes. It’s a slow decline into chaos and pain. Horrible. And it’s very, very hard to do something different.

(Big pause)

That was grim wasn’t it!

(Big laughter)

PD: So, Jung’s got idealised?

NW: It’s an idealisation of a journey.

Nigel Wellings

Garab Drove and Adzom Drugpa gouache thangka on gessoed cotton

PD: But you’re saying that the normal journey, sadly, doesn’t go like that at all, for most people.

NW: No. There’s a burst of possibility in your twenties, when your defences are at their thinnest. You can go mad, but there’s also lots of possibilities around at that period. And then it begins to stultify as it goes on.

PD: Like a bit of sediment, it hardens, it fixes.

NW: Yeah.

PD: Whether we’re even aware of the pain we hold or not, the pain gets manifested, gets fixed, and it’s not being cleared or resolved. But the switch that you’re talking about is ultimately that bit of mindful self-witnessing, a dis-identification. That’s what Buddhist practices bring into perspective?

So even Buddhism, whilst it might say that’s all personal narrative, it is still one great big meaning-making machine itself. You can’t step away from it

NW: Yeah. Psychotherapy can help us understand and tell our story more clearly. Piece together things we’ve never understood, and also find ways to relate with each other that are free of the wounding we received as children which was then was compounded by later experiences. But it needs to go further. It needs to reach down into the trauma held within the body and let this go. Let go of endlessly repeating the same narrative that at a certain point just cements it more deeply. Creating more and more neural circuitry around the same old stuff. This is where being with the felt-sense comes in, and then beyond this resting in spacious awareness, the naked presence that you mentioned earlier.

PD: Let’s tie this up then with a couple more things. In Transpersonal Psychotherapy: Theory and Practice there is a great quote from your opening chapter, Beginning the Work, where you’re talking about a shift of attitudes in a person:

‘Their fundamental attitude has shifted from unconscious victim to their own fears and desires, into having an open and accepting relationship with all of life.’

In relation to what you’ve just said, at one time in my life I was very locked in by my troubles, but now I’m in this breaking free space where I no longer want the things that have hindered me and the patterns of behaviour that have stalled me to define and cloud my present, to use an analogy. It is a bit like I’m saying that was then and it’s up to me now. This clarity has come post my therapy with you and follows on from the things I’ve achieved over the last decade or so that previously I would never have thought possible. Finally, I’ve only owned those things I can do and am good at. They never felt real in my early life, they were hidden abilities, all underground. So that’s moving up again, another notch. An ascent. And there is in my poetry, undoubtedly, in the book I published, a sense of woundedness. But I’m now ready to lose that too. It was important to work it through, naming it felt important, but also now dropping it feels important. It doesn’t matter to me anymore. In the same way. So this is a releasing? A letting go? You’re talking of letting go?

NW: Yes! This is a crucial point, isn’t it? This is exactly what I just said. We move through those hurts. Initially there’s a certain kind of emotional legitimacy in it. It’s necessary to understand and feel them. You can’t pretend they didn’t happen. They did. But there’s that moment where this part is finished. And you could then start turning being hurt into an identity. You know, I am somebody who was badly treated. But it’s gone. It’s past. Yes, it has left marks, but those marks themselves are going. They are fading all of the time. You could reinstate them. You could reinvigorate them, making a big thing of them. But, actually, doing that has nothing to do with the past. That’s now a new thing. Using the past to enclose yourself in a limiting narrative in the present. And I would say don’t do it. Don’t do it.

PD: So that awareness that we’re talking about in Buddhism – what’s the specific word for that sort of level of awareness that is connected to emptiness?

NW: If you are getting technical about it, the Tibetans call it rigpa. This means an intrinsic awareness that has always been present, an awareness that is pure in that it has never been sullied. An awareness that is not dependent on any external conditions for its existence. It is emptiness, the ground of being, the awakened mind, our buddha-nature. Something already present but finally impossible to describe.

PD: Right. We’re back at Welwood’s naked presence and a way of being?

NW: We are. Resting in empty awareness is something completely different and is achieved through meditative practice.

PD: Okay.

In meditation, emptiness is experienced as a spaciousness that knows itself, and this is likened to a wide-open sky, perfectly clear and without limits

NW: Resting within empty awareness is something quite specific. That’s the final step in John Welwood’s paper. That’s where it all leads. First, ordinary mindfulness, and then resting in the body and the felt sense, are our steps leading in that direction.

PD: And I think you say this in your Naked Presence chapter. These are deepening ways of being with ourselves, being with what we experience, being with the emptiness out of which everything emerges. However, I’m curious. You’re talking about letting go of being so important and making personal meaning so central, and then the importance of its dissolution. But you’re obviously very much making meaning in the books that you’re producing. It also strikes me that you are deriving meaning from your practice of Buddhism.

NW: Yes, it’s true. There’s a real paradox that people who are really deeply soaked within the Dharma generally have a very strong personality. A very confident personality, but not in a narcissistic, inflated way. You know they’re comfortable. They’re solid. You can’t push them over. So yeah, it seems the more you are willing to let go of your personal narrative and not make a big fuss about yourself, the easier it gets. Maybe it’s just as simple as that. I mean, I don’t write books about personality, and I certainly don’t write books about my own personality. I don’t have any interest in it. But I have an enormous interest in the open sky of awareness. It fascinates me. I sit every day, practising resting into that space. It’s the thing that I think is the most important thing. When I die, who knows? Maybe that’s all that’s left.

Senge Dongma

Senge Dongma gouache thangka on gessoed cotton

PD: And you’re living in a location where you’ve got big skies, high up, in Devon on the moor …

NW: I’m right on the lip of the moor. And we’re just looking out over a vast space. This is a funny thing. Meaning. For Jung meaning is everything. My Jungian analysts were constantly asking, ‘What’s the meaning of this?’ But the felt sense stuff that we’ve been talking about finally has no interest in meaning, because that’s really just solidifying the personal narrative. It’s much more interested in watching how the energy of an emotion comes and goes, it’s not interested in meaning. And yet we are such a meaning-creating machine. So even Buddhism, whilst it might say, well, you know, that’s all personal narrative, it is still one great big meaning-making machine itself. You can’t step away from it.

PD: Yeah. And I thought that too. It’s like anything else. Making meaning in this being alive strangeness.

NW: Yes, that’s true, but it’s making a certain type of meaning. And it’s a meaning which has got a backdoor into something bigger than personal meaning.

PD: Right. 

NW: Whereas lots of other things don’t have that backdoor in them. It’s just me, me, me.

PD: I went to a couple of Buddhist centres in my crisis period, after my cancer treatment. I spent a week at Dhanakosa in Balquhidder, just north of Glasgow, over twenty years ago now. What struck me about Buddhism, in what was an introductory course, was that it’s cognitive, it’s very rational.

NW: Yes, deeply. It’s close to mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy. In Buddhism, it’s called bhavana, mind training. You watch your mind and you make choices about what you allow to happen and what you don’t. That’s embarrassing, isn’t it, from a depth-psychotherapist perspective? Oh, my God, it’s CBT!! (Laughs)

The Buddhist perspective is that our buddha-nature, the awakened mind, is obscured from the start and that life may offer the possibility of uncovering it at any point

PD: I think I was thrown by that, in my naivety, but I was like, oh, okay. In one sense, these are big ideas, aren’t they. It seems to me that it could be easy to get lost in them. Maybe that’s just my own response. Okay, I guess my own response is that I’m slightly overwhelmed by 2500 years of accumulated Buddhist thought. These calm people in saffron robes with becalmed beatific faces. I’d like to think that I’m trying to live a true life to myself and to be in touch with myself. Okay, so maybe I should be seeing these as tools towards that, as opposed to being afraid of them. But maybe I’m just coming back to that theme again of … I’ve worked hard to find this bit of me –

NW: – then I’m whipping it away!

PD: Now you want to take it away from me?

NW: Yeah, well, why wouldn’t you feel that? That is the premise that the whole Buddhist enterprise begins from. Trying to solidify and protect an impermanent self and the pain it causes is the starting point of Buddhism. Then it asks: is there an alternative? It’s answer is yes. And this being so, it then lays out what are the steps to achieving this alternative. That’s Buddhism.

Nigel Wellings

“I think Norbu Rinpoche saved my life by plucking me out of a trajectory going nowhere…”

JULY 2023 Paul Deaton MONK


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