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John Welwood | The Loss of My Mentor

john welwood mindfulness spiritual bypass Feb 07, 2019

“I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.”

~ C.S. Lewis, Irish author and poet~

“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”

~ Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, Swiss-American psychiatrist

The words written in Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships spoke to my heart.

Never before had I been pierced so deeply. I needed to learn more about the author.

John Welwood is a pioneer, the Grandfather, in the field of East–West Psychology. Inspired at an early age by D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, and a student of the famous Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He spent his life pondering the relationship between Buddhist awakening and growth in psychotherapy.

He has the beautiful ability to seamlessly interweave the deep wisdom of the eastern ancient traditions and the modern western psychology world.

Have you ever heard of the term “spiritual bypassing?”

It’s the idea that people use spiritual ideas or practices to avoid unresolved emotional and psychological challenges. John coined this phrase.

I was in the middle of my graduate studies, grasping to make deeper meaning of my chosen path to become a therapist. And there John’s work was, perfectly written in this book assigned to me in my studies ~ the book really felt as if it was written just for me.

Turns out, fate would have it.

The author, John Welwood, lived in Marin, where he had an ongoing group.

And, as if the world had somehow perfectly aligned, he was also looking for me.

I was poor in graduate school, as many of us are. I wanted to participate in his ongoing groups, but I couldn’t even squeeze a penny out of my pint-sized budget.

I didn’t t want to miss the opportunity to sit with John. It felt too right when I read his book. I applied to his group with a request to explore some sort of work/trade option.

John called me on Super Bowl Sunday. With a beer in hand, in the bathroom of a random party I sold myself as a valuable personal assistant, able to tackle anything thrown at me – and blah blah blah – I got the job!

John’s assistant had recently moved and he was looking for a replacement.

Talk about timing.

And, now, writing this and looking back, I can only imagine what he must have been thinking. This twenty-something chick talking super fast, completely stuck in compensatory identity . . .  Well, we don’t know what we don’t know.

John was a drug for me.

Whenever I sat with John, his presence, words, worldly and wise lens cut through all the other bullshit of life. It felt like an altered state that he’d gently guide me up into.

Be here, now.

Be open, now.

Be awake, now.

Tasting the pleasure of being fully alive, connected and fully accepting yourself. This is the sweetest nectar. A true offering.

About two years in, the group was working with the some edges of pain. I had this visceral sense of something I’d never felt before:

An epiphany!


when felt without the story attached,

breaks the heart open.

An open heart

heals and transforms pain.

It began to make sense. The pains in my heart, the defenses and closed off parts, if I was gentle with them and openly felt them, carried a purpose (and not just to torture me).

When given space and fully felt, pain would lead me to openness It would serve as a guide to the pure flowing openness my heart so deeply yearned for..

It was magic learning from John.

Something that felt so impossible, so completely and totally overwhelming, all of a sudden became a gift; an opportunity to wake the f*ck up.

I needed this. (hence my earlier drug reference)

We all need this. (We truly do.)

Over the years, John’s words made their way into my practice with clients. I have so many beautiful memories of being stuck with a client and channeling John. Feeling his many years of wisdom come through me, we danced through the darkness. He taught me how to meet people simply where they are, in the present and take them lovingly toward awakening.

Deeper into themselves so they, too, can access the flow of life.

I remember many clients over the years commenting, “You’re so wise.”

That is all thanks to my dear wizardly friend, John Welwood.


John was exceptionally private.

Part of my job as his assistant all these years was acting as gatekeeper for him from the outside world.

Fame came with his many books, and people wanted to know him. He was a celebrity in the psychotherapy world.

But that was not John Welwood. He did not want a cult following.

One of his other students so poignantly wrote to this in a Facebook post:

“John Welwood is who I wanted to be when I grew up, even though he would scoff at any mention of idolization. It isn’t what he wanted at all, and that also was a deep lesson for me.”

And then days became hours.

I received a late night email from John’s wife. Time was near.

At midnight, I entered the hospital.

Entering the hospital room of someone you respect, admire, feel so connected to on levels that are beyond words – knowing this would be the last time in this way you will be in this person’s presence is profound.


Sitting next to John, my heart felt as it was being ripped apart.

I had never felt so grateful, thankful and humbled. Even though he was not medically conscious, I could feel he was happy I was there. Although goodbyes are hard, especially ones like these, there was a sense of honor and closing.

I left at 3 AM.

At 9 AM John’s soul left his body. He took his last breaths wrapped in the arms of his beloved wife, Jennifer.

My job as gatekeeper for John has been a blessing. Being able to honor John and gently share with those who also loved him that he is longer with us is a big task – one I didn’t fully realize I’d signed up for until it was happening.

Below is what I sent to his community:

Dear Beloved Community,

It is with deep sorrow that we share John passed away on January 17th.

As a student and a teacher of meditation, John helped many people gain the awareness of how to more fully inhabit themselves. His clarity, simplicity and loving knowledge of the psyche and human heart has rippled with influence and impact across the world.

Deeply grounded in the felt sense experience, John guided us into the openness of the heart, the beauty of sensitivity, the gift of pain, the joy of living from connection and what is means to be at ‘home’ in oneself. His gentle and loving teachings encouraged development of an internal greater presence within the body, speech, and mind.

It is a shock to lose someone as special and unique as John. May the influence he has had in your life continue to resonate deeply and inspire you to be more fully alive.

Weeks out, I am still grappling with the loss. There simply was so much more I wanted, felt I needed, had to learn from him.

I was not ready to lose him as my mentor in the flesh.
Although, for years to come he’ll teach me.

Of this I am sure.

It is a giant wake up call. As if someone had smacked me over the head with a big bat.

Wake up. Live more. Be more present. Inhabit your heart and love without fear.

We are not here forever. Life is a gift.

John and Mary left the earth on the same day. It only seems appropriate to end this post with a poem by Mary Oliver.

The Summer Day

Who made the world? 
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth
instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver



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