Premature Transcendence

Jonathan Page - February 2018


This strange phrase, coined I believe by John Welwood, essentially to mean “Spiritual Bypassing”, has been wafting through various levels of my consciousness for some time. In summary it means “trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced it and made peace with it”. I see the phrase not so much a “heading” but the hub of an important, complex and potentially contentious idea surrounded by the vastness of human experience, as viewed, described and classified by so many scholars, within so many intellectual, hermeneutic and spiritual traditions.

I see this essay as my Fifth Noble Task, one of current importance to myself, and hopefully, with a clear exposition, a matter of deep value to others. All views of course are my own. I will introduce some fresh personal experience to add the moisture of tears and liveliness to an otherwise dry dissertation.

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If this is my Fifth Task what are the Four?  The Four Noble Truths are the foundations of Buddhism. Stephen Batchelor has called them the Four Tasks, to challenge us to engage deeply with this philosophy and to actually change our lives (the felt sense of our lives).

The First Noble Truth (or Task) declares that we humans, without exception, are subject to the experience of dukkha (the constant feeling of “an ill-fitting axle hole”), namely some form of discomfort, suffering, sorrow, misery, tedium, alienation, angst, lamentation, grief, disorientation or unsatisfactoriness, which may relate to ageing, illness, dying and even birth, all exacerbated perhaps by the sense of impermanence and constant change beyond our influence, and not necessarily in our best interests.

The Second Truth defines various categories of explanation of dukkha, with the Second Task entreating us to truly and deeply attempt to understand and to feel the causes of suffering. The Third Truth/Task relates to the cessation of suffering, escape from Samsara (the seemingly endless cycle of dukkha: craving, anger and the illusion of permanence), with the Fourth Truth/Task describing in some practical detail the Eightfold Path, leading us away from dukkha, with the prospect of the eventual extinction of suffering and a moment of Nirvana.

The nature of one’s suffering at any moment in time is difficult to define or describe – it lies behind our inadequate language, subtle or gross, sometimes billowing like a blustery storm, at other times writhing like an impaled snake. We may feel our delicate heart crushed by unexpected circumstances, we may endlessly relive a foolish moment of indiscretion, collapse with the burden of overwhelming shame, or dissolve in the knowledge that we will never be adequate. Or 10,000 other scenarios, each imprecise, just out of focus, ever changing, but always hurting, badly.

Importantly dukkha mostly has physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions although often perceived in just one. Grief is an all-consuming experience, often felt as a profound sadness, a bleak depression or an awful joylessness, or all of these and more, felt in the emotional realm of the mind, but clearly with physical manifestations – the searing tear of the heart, the posture of defeat and the facial expression of despair, quite terrifying to see in the mirror. Within the spiritual dimension there is the sense of meaninglessness and perhaps the notion that life has become too difficult to live. So there are just so many aspects of each of our various dukkhas (we are allowed to have more than one!). 

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We are never clear just why a person decides to take up meditation, and there may be many factors, known and unknown, often with little understanding of meditation, and even less of “the spiritual life”. There are likely to be various expectations, again known and unknown, and the first meditative experience may be positive in some way, or negative, or in between. A new language may be necessary to describe the intricacies of our developing awareness. We may realise, possibly suddenly, that others share our predicament.

Those that continue with meditation, regularly or irregularly, ardently or casually, respectfully or not, may notice some changes for the better – relaxation, calmness, a quietening of the mind, a reduction of reactivity. They may hear about greed, hatred and delusion and may modify their ideas, behaviour and lifestyle somewhat. They may reach a plateau, feel “stuck” or once again cry out: “I’m still unhappy!”

Unfortunately it may be that meditation alone, even with repeated long retreats, does not address all the underlying factors that contribute to our dukkha, no matter how assiduous we are. This limitation is not always immediately evident. It may well be less of an issue in non-western cultures and in other time periods. John Welwood talks of a “split between, you could say, the awakened part of us and the human part of us, the Buddha and the human. Transcendence is valued higher than embodiment. Detachment is made more important than feeling”. We may practice endless non-attachment by dismissing our need for love since we deem ourselves unlovable. We may strive so hard on the cushion but suffer with meditators’ guilt, ever wanting to be the best, to drive out that inner critic, whose voice we discover during a weekly sit, may be that of a long-deceased authority figure.

Bruce Tift, Ken Wilber, Stanislav Grof and so many others have much  to say on this matter, as do Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield who skilfully braid the two approaches, each enhancing the other, and providing deeper and ever deeper levels of understanding. Mark Epstein writes of the “trauma of being alive”. Ken Wilber stresses the importance of Growing up as well as Waking Up. The Tibetan psychologist Lobsang Rapgay examines the consequences of unaddressed issues of dysfunctional personality in Buddhist leaders.

There is so much work to be done! Seeking out the long-ago source of our discontent. So daunting! We need courage and support. A wise spiritual friend with direct worldly experience, who has returned from the deeper catacombs. A latter day Asclepius, a wounded healer from ancient times who always attended to body and soul. We may seek out a renown therapist, but expect a long journey, but the most important of this lifetime. Jack Kornfield talks of the “glance of mercy”, as the guru sees through the carapace of the false self to the tender goodness within.

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I cannot avoid quoting TS Eliot Little Gidding (the last of the Four Quartets):

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. 
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning; 
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always-- 
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

We may know ourselves for the first time, our innocent voice in the apple-tree, now heard in the stillness; this search “costing not less than everything”.

So, my current meditation report: in my endless quest, I enter the forest, perhaps that quivering patch of bush near my home, or the small portable copse I carry in my mind. A balmy day. I pause, then sit beneath the Eucalyptus saligna, yes my favourite blue gum. I begin with mindfulness of body, sensation and thoughts, then “simply” awareness, broad, deep and focussed, inspired by the poem “Aware” by Denise Levertov:

When I found the door
I found the vine leaves
speaking among themselves in abundant
My presence made them
hush their green breath,
embarrassed, the way
humans stand up, buttoning their jackets,
acting as if they were leaving anyway, as if
the conversation had ended
just before you arrived.
I liked
the glimpse I had, though,
of their obscure
gestures. I liked the sound
of such private voices. Next time
I'll move like cautious sunlight, open
the door by fractions, eavesdrop

I too noticed two dissimilar green leaves at my feet, one lying half across the other, tremulous in the still air, with soft conversation (in the folian language!), one describing the sensation of tiny ant feet scurrying across her cuticle, the ants always thankful and kind, the other recalling the words of the wise magpie, teaching them the avian view of the universe (you have to have fun!).

Mary Oliver writes:

After the rain, I went back into the field of sunflowers.
It was cool, and as I was anything but drowsy
I walked slowly, and listened
To the crazy roots, in the drenched earth, laughing and growing.

I am now floating freely. I am aware of compassion and formlessness, but also clearly aware of my father (who died 50 years ago), nearby, as I feel a familiar light pressure at the base of my neck, that once led to tears. Some years ago I felt I was done with grieving, but, as it turned out, I had not even begun. My father continued to be present (and very patient). The transition came when I finally called him “dad”, such a struggle, and with so many tears. There was more, as I now recalled my 6 year old self. I now had to call him “daddy” as well, as I always did when I ran to him each evening. More tears but relief beyond measure, and joy replaced sorrow. The medical portcullis, incarcerating emotion, had lifted.

But today there is other work, as the image of a beloved patient comes vividly to mind. As she took her last breath, after days of coma, her eyes opened and she gazed deeply into mine. I was so fortunate to be there, and finally now I can weep. So much weeping! Forty buckets (Nick Cave). So real. So hearty. Enough for today!

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John Welwood described “Spiritual Bypassing” some 40 years ago. He now describes “the psychospiritual architecture of Samsara”. Samsara is neurotic suffering, unnecessary suffering, self-created suffering. Chronologically from birth (and even before) he describes our experience of the open ground of being, filled with awareness, felt as a raw sensitivity, a vulnerability, called “basic goodness” by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and called “the secret beauty behind the eyes” by Thomas Merton, but predisposing to a certain “existential anxiety”, to some extent present in all of us. Inevitably this leads to a contraction to avoid the pain, a dissociation, a disconnection from our essential nature.

At this time we may experience a “relational wound”, through the “lack of a good holding environment”, the absence for a time of the unconditional love of our parents, not being actually held with love, but also not given a certain space. To some degree the child takes responsibility for the lack of perceived/felt love, and feels unlovable, unworthy, lacking and not enough.

Jack Kornfield tells the story of a patient, now 55, who remembers his naughtiness at age 5, asking his despairing mother, “Do you love me mummy?”  His mother replies: “How could anyone love you?” He still suffers. He remains “loyal to his suffering”.

This may lead to a deficient identity, generating a false self, which repeatedly attempts to compensate, to prove we’re good and lovable. We need to fill ourselves up with love, praise, achievement as proof of our worth. Tara Brach calls this “the trance of unworthiness”.

Which puts us on a rollercoaster of hope and fear. “Everything becomes self-referential in our experience. In our thoughts we try to repair the wound of deficient identity by filling it up with stories about ourselves and our world. We're constantly spinning out mental stories”.

“The relational wound is worked with in healing by psychological work, and the existential wound through spiritual work”. The two aspects inter-weave ie embodied psychospiritual work, often within meditation. There is compassion and loving kindness in each approach.  

Ojibwe says: “Sometimes I go about pitying myself, when all the while I’m being carried by great winds across the sky”. We are part of and an expression of the natural world.

Alice Walker says: “One day when I was sitting there like a motherless child, which I was, it came to me that feeling of being a part of everything, and I knew if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed, and I laugh, and I cry, and I run all around the house. In fact, when it happens, you can’t miss it” (quote from Jack Kornfield).

At this point please pause. Perhaps have a break. There has been a great deal of material (and non-material) presented. Reflect. Perhaps review. Then move forward slowly and openly.

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Based on these ideas John Welwood follows five stages of therapy. John begins with Engaged Presence - bringing your presence to bear on your felt experience, specifically on the felt experience of pain, loss, self-centredness, self-referentiality. Then there’s Cutting Through - the ability to drop one's involvement in neurotic patterns, realising that they are unhelpful and unnecessary anymore. John then employs Embodiment Exercises, progressively allowing the felt sense of ourselves to fully inhabit our own body (as does Reggie Ray and Judith Orloff), before moving on to Open Inquiry, which can be used earlier, which may include Unpacking and Focussing (as per Eugene Gendlin) identifying and tracking feelings in the body. "The only psychotherapy that works is when the client is saying something they've never said before." Finally the experience, with its pain, is held in Loving Kindness.


Tara Brach suggests three steps when gently confronting our suffering: be aware of thoughts, be aware of feelings in the body, and develop loving kindness. Say to yourself: “this is suffering”.

With Jack Kornfield she developed the RAIN approach:

Recognise the details of your suffering with loving awareness.

Acceptance with compassion.  

Investigate – where is it, what is its nature.

Not identify with the suffering; it is not you, nor you it. Nurture yourself.


Continue the practice.

Remember our essential goodness, our “perfection” (but still needing improvement [Suzuki Roshi]). 

Return to the specific causes of our suffering with self compassion.

Gain confidence (i.e. faith in one’s inner goodness, worthiness and lovability).

Employ forgiveness of the three directions (forgive oneself for harming others, forgive oneself for harming oneself, forgive the other for harming our self). This requires courage. As the Indian sage Meher Baba explains, “True love is not for the faint-hearted.”

Develop clarity, empathy, wonder, resilience.

Become unconditionally present in one’s own life.

Take the “exquisite risk” (Mark Nepo), open up out of our familiar cocoon to contact the wider reality.

“Did I live well?”

“Did I love fully?”

“Did I love well?”


Please try to avoid the mournful self-elegy of Raymond Tallis:

The undone, the unknown, and, most painfully, the unlived.

His regrets would focus not on the paths not taken but the taken paths not experienced.

On the absent-mindedness, sleepiness, indifference, insensitivity that marked his awareness of the passage he had taken through the world.

So his late concern had been not with the life “over there” that had been denied him, but the life “here and now” that he had been insufficiently awake to.

It was not the relationships he had not had, the people he had not known or met, but what had been left unsaid in those relationships he had had, to the people he had known, those he had met.

Mutual presence had too often been dissipated in chatting, as each colluded with the other in finding the easiest things to say.

This might become his epitaph: “He had not been sufficiently present in the world that had presented itself to him”.